Closer Readings Commentary

Building Grit – a key to success!

"It doesn't matter if people are playing jazz or writing poetry—if they want to be successful, they need to learn how to persist and persevere, how to keep on working until the work is done." —Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works

Perhaps you’ve read about recent “grit studies,” or listened to psychologist Angela Duckworth’s TED talk. In that presentation entitled, "The Key to Success? Grit," Duckworth shared her research where she looked at new West Point cadets and discovered that IQ and self-control were not effective indicators of whether they would finish basic training. Instead, she found that “grit predicted completion of the rigorous program better than any other predictor.” The most successful candidates exhibited grit, completing both the academic and the physical tasks necessary to graduate.

But what exactly is "grit”? To get a handle on this elusive quality, Duckworth developed a widely used “Grit Survey” an anonymous measure of a subject’s self-reported levels of perseverance, passion, tenacity, work ethic, ambition, and goal commitment. (Read more about this at The Duckworth Lab: University of Pennsylvania.)

How then can we, as educators, help our students develop grit and the academic resilience necessary to rise to the challenges of ever-increasing complexity in our society?

The answer lies in beliefs and behaviors!

The power of belief

We are convinced that certain educator beliefs have a direct impact upon students’ motivation to persevere.

Carol Dweck, one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation, found learners who believe in their own fixed intelligence tend to be less resilient than students who learn to attribute their success to hard work.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the belief among educators that ALL students can learn and grow, despite gaps in their education, stressors, or other challenges.

Teachers need to explicitly convey this belief in students’ potential in order for them to believe in themselves.

It is also important to determine what students believe. Emphasize these three statements related to success:

  • I finish whatever I begin.
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  • I am a hard worker.

Discuss with students how their answers to these questions may affect the tasks ahead of them.

By cultivating a greater self-awareness, students gain a powerful personal tool and a boon to their scholastic performance.

Yes, research is hard work. But with perseverance and teacher guidance, success is within reach. Reinforce the notion that effort equals success as opposed to luck equals success.

The power of behavior

We surveyed teachers for steps they used to develop the stick-to-itiveness necessary for their students to see a complex task through to its completion. Several behaviors surfaced that fall under four broad categories:

  • Offer choice

Wherever possible, allow students to base research choices on their own interests. Hook students with their own passions and interests and get to know them at a deeper level. Foster relationships that can create synergistic learning loops.

  • Communicate

How many of you have seen the surprise in a student’s eyes when you greet them in the hall by their first name, or ask them how their game went last night? Reach out to your students. We all want to feel connections and be part of a larger group. Foster approachability. Our students need to know that we are not only accessible, but we are also approachable. Have them feel safe asking questions. Foster dialog about life, in and out of the classroom. Take the time to engage in reflective questioning as well. Doing so will pay dividends as our students wade through the muddy research process as well as the rigor and complexity of tasks required by the curriculum.

  • Model

Students must be comfortable asking questions. By imitating our process, our students learn how to clarify concepts. Regularly rephrase questions or ask students to do so as they seek clarity. Take the time to paraphrase ideas more simply or with greater complexity, depending upon the various skill levels of your students. Use the terms rephrase and paraphrase to help students learn to develop these skills themselves.

Use the powerful “think-aloud technique.” As you explain concepts, explicitly tell students what your thought process looks like as you work through it. Start with “when I think of this, an idea comes to mind” or “this seems to be connected to that.” Model thinking through a problem and demonstrate you don’t have instant access to all the answers. This promotes taking time to work through a problem and provides valuable practice for students faced with decision-making in peer situations.

  • Plan

Solid instructional planning offers students small successes along the way and makes large projects manageable. Our students take part in the Chicago Metro History Fair—a research project that extends over several months and combines primary and secondary research. We scaffold assignments into manageable chunks. Starting with interest inventories and topic feasibility, students align the assignment with personal interests. This reassures them that their goal is attainable and will thus help them to persevere through deep research.

Teaching students how to coordinate claims and provide evidence to back up their arguments is an important part of instruction. One way to approach this is to have them create graphic organizers clearly labeling claim and evidence. Then reinforce the need for evidence by having them add additional sub-points for evidence and sources. Teachers can use exit slips and other formative assessments such as structured statements and questions to determine if students are successfully finding evidence to support their claims as well as assessing the validity of their evidence.

As the tasks become increasingly more complex, such multiple short formative assessments help students develop the habit of mind to self-check where they are in the process. They also provide teachers with valuable data for fine-tuning instruction.

Finally, never forget to celebrate students’ smaller achievements on the way to a larger goal.

By considering beliefs and behaviors in the classroom, we help students develop grit. Believe all students can succeed. Convey that belief overtly and repeatedly. Provide choice, communicate, model verbally, and plan instruction. To paraphrase Angela Duckworth, we must become gritty about getting our students gritty!

About the Guest Authors:

Pam Pleviak is an educational consultant specializing in instructional technologies and libraries. Over her 20-plus years in education, she has worked as a teacher, librarian, and department chair, and technology director. She has authored articles focusing upon integrating technology in the curriculum.

Cynthia Karabush has been teaching as a Library Media Specialist for over a decade. In this role, she promotes recreational reading, effective research, and twenty-first-century learning. She is an advocate for technology integration in the curriculum and for student choice in reading.